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Evidence of the Universal Gift of Pictorial Thinking

One of the two universal gifts of right-brained people are that they think in pictures…three-dimensional pictures. Chapter Five in my book, The Right Side of Normal, explains this more.  Because three-dimensional pictorial thinking is a universal gift (a trait that all right-brained people will possess), parents and educators can recognize glimpses into how these young learners process information throughout the developmental learning stages if the art of observation is employed.

The developmental learning stages is centered in the process of the brain moving from a heavily dominant position during the Foundation Stage (ages 5 to 7) (primarily relying on the genetically-determined dominant brain’s universal gifts) to the Transition Stage (ages 8 to 10) (beginning to use more of the non-preferred side of the brain’s traits), to the Integration Stage (ages 11 to 13) (functioning more holistically, though still often having a dominant side). Some right-brained children will give you glimpses to that process. My artist son’s writing was a classic example of these three stages personified:

As many young children will do, my artist son certainly just drew pictures, like this one: 

Notice that there are no words included. It’s only pictorial in nature, as is the focus of the 5 to 7 year age that he was in when he drew the picture. And yet, when he entered the 8 to 10 year age stage where the transition to his non-preferred skills come into play, he added words to his picture, though the picture is still the foundation, such as this one:

These same progressions can be seen as he learned to express his ideas through story-telling. We all learn to value writing words down to make a story, but for a picture-based right-brained story-teller, it represents itself through the stages of the development for brain integration. Here’s part of the Lion King story shown through pictures only (each section had actually been drawn on a separate piece of paper) because he drew it in the Foundation Stage of 5 to 7 years old:

As my artist son entered the Transition Stage of developmental learning for a right-brained child, he added words to his picture story, just like his singular pictures had transitioned. This is the start of his Pokémon comic book:

And finally, as my artist son entered the Integration Stage for writing his stories, with both sides of the brain’s skill sets being more integrated, he dropped the pictures altogether. Now, mind you, this project was for a visual medium, movie making, so be assured the picture was still very much in his head, but he didn’t have to represent it on paper with the picture first anymore since the integration of skill sets had come together. This is a page from his 100-page script:

Because my firstborn son is an artist, I was able to more concretely see the developmental learning stage transitions, such as with his writing above. I also saw it with geography, history, and animals.

Other types of right-brained learners may be able to show you glimpses in other ways. For instance, right-brained children tend to learn time and calendaring later because of their skill set of space versus time (see Chapter Nine in my book). A comment from a mother at my post on time shared how her Foundation Stage right-brained son enjoyed learning about calendaring using full pictorial methods:

Your blog has helped me so much and I’ve stayed up way too late reading! I’ve done RB-accommodating things for my son (now 7) all his life, without really understanding what I was doing, but knowing it was a very effective way to communicate with him. After reading your blog, EVERYTHING clicks and I can be an even better parent! This post made me think of one small success we recently had. My son was thinking about holidays, but couldn’t figure out how they all fit into all the months on the calendar. We made a poem together with family-relevant rhymes for each month (“Jan. is month number one when skiing is our favorite fun”), and then he illustrated the rhymes. He came up with the idea of a squirrel who, in each month’s picture, had various misadventures, like rocketing out of a firework factory in July, He remembers the order of all the months so well now, and after reading your blog, I totally understand why. Thank you!

My builder son also self-initiated learning about calendaring in the Transition Stage, thus, he used some symbolism by drawing out the calendar, but including pictorials:


My last example of the evidence of the universal gift of pictorial thinking at play as shown through the developmental learning stages is my builder son. He was very much a person who developed his spatial abilities at a young age. He discovered mazes as one way to do this. He moved quickly away from doing pre-made mazes to creating his own. This is a maze he created during the Foundation Stage of 5 to 7 years old. Notice he included pictures:

And yet, by the time my builder son reached the Transition Stage of 8 to 10 years old, the picture portion was dropped and this was what I found:

Builder son maze…older age

Not only is using pictures during the Foundation Stage possible with something like mazes, it even happens for math:


The universal gift of picture-based thinking also explains why a parent or educator may find doodles on their right-brained child’s later developmental learning stages…it helps them turn on the right side of the brain as they are learning to transition without pictures. Here’s an example with math:

Right now, schools are set up to support the universal gifts of the left-brained dominant learner: word-based thinking and sequential learning. We need to recognize and give value to the right-brained universal gifts of picture-based thinking and an extraordinary imagination. If you give space for a right-brained child to express themselves in the most natural way they are meant to process information, and if you observe carefully, you will most definitely notice evidences of the picture-based thinking found in right-brained learners that is the foundation for their learning lives. This is not infantile. It’s a legitimate way to process information that will transform to primarily inside their minds as they integrate all the brain functions of both skill sets delineated as right- and left-brained traits.

Question: What evidences have you noticed in your right-brained learners of their picture-based thinking trait?

17 responses to “Evidence of the Universal Gift of Pictorial Thinking

  1. My 8-year-old son seems very, very visual. He doesn’t really play with toys. He loves television and gaming. He’s starting to love books, but only very visual books. He also loves to go off to a space in the house that we have cleared out for him. He runs around it wildly acting out these fantasies he’s created in his mind. When I ask him if he sees pictures in his head about his fantasy game, he says excitedly, “Yes Mom, I see it in my mind, and then I project it out in front of me.” He calls them “finger games” because he draws things out in the air with his finger as he plays these games. I am pretty right brain, but I find his play amazing. He came up to me and started explaining this funny anecdote he saw on the tv about a cactus under the sea. He was drawing with his finger while he told me about this, so I asked him what he was drawing. He said, “the anchor with the cactus under the sea.” He draws in the air nearly constantly.

    He definitely seems to fit the right-brain time frame. His reading is coming along steadily, but he still likes us to read everything to him. He doesn’t have any desire to manipulate numbers, but seems to have a great understanding of atomic structure. He loves to watch adult learning shows on science and history, and remembers an incredible amount of what he watches. He also loves anything funny and learning about other cultures.

    I was happy to find your site and your book. We’re unschoolers, so we were already honoring his interests and time frames, but it’s nice to let go of the small worries I carried about math and spelling.

    • I love it, Sara, when someone describes their right-brained child straight along the lines of what I explain is typical for their interests and gifts. Your son’s interest in mathematics concepts, science, history, cultures, and enjoying humor and visual input perfectly aligns to his stage of learning development. Love it!

      I also love how he expresses his visual, pictorial thinking. I was able to show an artist version, and some of a builder version, and I feel your son is representing the theater version of the early stage of exhibiting their highly visual, pictorial nature. Very cool 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  2. The doodling! That cracked me up – the math sheet could come from our house … except it would have horses on it. My daughter tended to draw the same thing over and over in the 5-7 range. I have about 300 pictures of dogs, lions, and horses. That’s it, nothing else. No people, no cats, no trees with rainbows. She didn’t draw the “typical” 5-7 year old girl stuff. She also spent most of her time constructing more 3D art … rolling strips of paper into circles and gluing them to paper, cutting up toilet paper tubes and gluing them, gluing string to paper, etc. She HATED coloring. On the other hand, my other RB child (son) loves to color, and does so immaculately.

    • I love how each visual mind has it’s own focus, Robyn. Your daughter explored her interest in her particular animal topics through drawing. My artist son was similar; he liked particular animals as well. And then she seems like a cross between my daughter who adored crafting at that age, and my builder son, who used his own creative explorations with the simplest material that became what they envisioned. Cool stuff! I wish I had taken pictures of my builder son’s tape and paper creations…make sure you snap some pictures!

  3. My son rarely drew an image he almost always drew entire stories or scenes. He would cover his paper with tiny characters, swirling lines, buildings etc. Always used a single color because he had so much he wanted to express and did want to waste time messing with different markers.
    At first I didn’t get it but once I had him explain the drawing he would show me the story going on (often a scene fron a video game or something he made up). The paper looked confusing to me but years later I can ask my son what is going on in one of his drawings and he can still tell me. These stories without words started at age 5. He slowly grew to 4 page stories with big action scenes on each page and one short sentence of text. Oh lots of time his text was written in mirror form. If he wrote a caption for a character the letters followed the direction of that character, so that meant words would be written mirror, climbing up, etc. Now at age 11 he enjoys making animations and communicating through videos. In the last couple of months he has started to write FanFiction (no pictures).

    • Very cool, Michelle! I realize after listening to you share about your son’s scene drawings that my theater son does the same thing! He always draws scenes…usually of his Indian interest in some sort of battle mode. And how cool to see where it has evolved to in being an animator and video maker…totally makes sense! Thanks for sharing your son’s version of his visual mind.

  4. Cindy, I would definitely agree with theater son, although I didn’t necessarily make that connection before reading your reply. He sure doesn’t take direction. He likes to be the writer, director, and actor himself. When he plays with other kids, he gives them their lines in his fantasy play. They tell me that his games are so fun that they don’t mind 🙂

    • Ah, yes, Sara! The director/producer personality. That was my eldest son! He also needed willing minions, as I called them…haha! As you said, they didn’t mind because his creativity was so fun. I remember he shared with me that his visual imagery of what he wanted to enact was so strong and clear that it would be torment to modify it from being a direct translation of his visual. This was particularly true in his younger years, when he was less flexible toward his creative prowess and collaboration. Yet, because of great friends, he did learn to collaborate…to a director/producer level…haha!

  5. My daughter shows all the main characteristics of right-brained learners, including the early tendency to rotate objects in her head. However, she is also very, very word-oriented. Once, when we were in the car and she was listening to an audiobook, she said, “Mom, when I look out the window I can see two worlds at once.”

    Now that she’s older, she tells me she imagines characters from books in incredible visual detail, something I never ever do. She knows which side they part their hair on, whether their shoes have ties or buckles. At the same time, they talk inside her head, so there are both verbal and visual aspects of her imagining.

    I don’t know how common this is among right-brained and/or left-brained kids, but her dreams are extremely vivid and pictorial. She tells me about them almost every day, and they sound very much like the movie-style images I’ve heard other people describe here.

    • I was always amazed at my children’s visual detail, too, Karen! When I read stories aloud to my older two, as the details were revealed, they could create that image in their minds that stayed. I couldn’t do that. This is exactly the situation that happened when they asked me to describe my favorite character from Harry Potter, and I totally misrepresented the physical attributes, My children told me exactly how the character looked…thin and tall, for instance, when I said short and stout. And they could find the description two books previous! But, their visual imagery was all they needed. So cool!

      As for your daughter’s word-oriented part, it certainly can be her female gender side coming into play, or her Aspie-related attributes. Everyone is SO individual, but the visual imagery tends to represent itself in some way, whether through color and music, movies, or shape-based diagrams, like my builder son. I LOVE how she shared inside her mind when she described her ability to “see two worlds at once.” Very, very interesting!

  6. Pingback: The Creative Outlets | The Right Side of Normal

  7. The comics! That is how my daughter first started writing her stories. Her first stories were dictated for me to write down in words, but the first ones she used her own hand for came out in pictures with a few words added here and there.

    Everyone in our family thinks in pictures. I had to laugh when I read the bit about the drawing during math. When I taught math, I would draw out word problems on the overhead. And my kids (I mean, students) would giggle. 🙂 But the pictures helped!

    • Isn’t that SO interesting, Victoria? Your experience simply reflects the natural unfolding process centering in a right-brained learner’s foundational strength of pictorial thinking. Cool stuff 🙂

  8. I now recognize myself as fairly right-brained, but I would not have struck my teachers as a particularly visual thinker because I was also very word-oriented. I HAVE TO WRITE. But I have described my writing process to others, before I encountered these paradigms, in this way: I see an idea, a concept, a story or an argument as one whole thing and then I describe it by translating into words– because I don’t have the ability to draw or sculpt or diagram it adequately. It’s vision, but not entirely sight. I work really hard to get the most perfectly fitted word and sequence because I can’t chisel or blend the image like an artist would. The abstract symbols of letters, numbers, words and the sound they make are just media.

    This process makes it very hard to teach writing to my kids except by modeling it and responding to what they produce. I may not teach it; I can coach it and cheer it!

    • Oooh, Kim, I love your descriptive words comparing your use of writing to how an artist uses his preferred medium. My daughter has shared her writing pattern to be very similar to yours. She’s a right-brained person with solid female left-brained attribute in translating to words. I remember when my daughter was studying for the ACT test, and she was practicing math, and I encouraged her to process certain “easier” ideas in her head instead of writing it down. She focused to do so, then exhaled and declared, “I can’t; I have to write it to process it.”

      She’s a fiction, fantasy writer. She also dabbles in poetry, lyrics, and fan fiction, all of which are more right-brained writing expressions. It would be highly difficult for me to write fiction because I can’t see the whole story in my head. As you said, she translates the story. Even her recent blogging is highly visual and pictorial. At first, I wanted to try to use some of her style with my website, but I just can’t be right-brained like her. I have to accept my style and appreciate hers and remember we can all learn from each other 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

  9. Interesting. My son draws our shopping list.
    He draws on his books.
    Definitely artistic and talented above his years with animated cartooning. But writing is the challenge.
    I was surprised to see him sit at the window when we had are time this week. He drew all the houses, beach, mountains river etc of where we are staying looking into Rio. He did add a couple of words.
    He is 8.
    I’m learning lots thanks Ruth

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